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Sunday, 10 May, 1998, 23:15 GMT 00:15 UK
Q & A: Arms-to-Africa scandal
sierra leone graphic
Who knew what and when?
The British Foreign Secretary's offer to quit if he is found to have acted wrongly in the growing arms-to-Sierra Leone scandal is the latest twist in the controversy.

It revolves around alleged official approval of preparations for a coup to topple a military junta which ousted the troubled west African country's president 12 months ago.

How did the controversy come about?
A British firm, Sandline International, was hired last July by allies of ousted President Tejan Kabbah to provide "logistical support" - namely the supply of arms and a helicopter - for a counter-coup.

The mercenary company, based in London and headed by the former Guards officer Tim Spicer, is accused of breaching a UN resolution by arranging for a shipment of 35 tons of Bulgarian-made AK-47 rifles to Sierra Leone.

A key part of Sandline's defence is that it kept Foreign Office officials and Whitehall defence intelligence staff fully informed of the operation.

Foreign Secretary Mr Cook says neither he nor fellow ministers had that information passed to them. In order to underline his probity he has offered his resignation - while stressing that he has done nothing wrong.

What happened in Sierra Leone in the first place?
President Kabbah, a former United Nations official, was elected to power in March 1996 after years of bloody civil war.

On May 25 last year the democratically-elected president was ousted by army officer Johnny Paul Koroma. Kabbah fled to the capital of neighbouring Guinea and began to seek international support for his restoration.

Where does Sandline fit into this "restoration" project?
Rakesh Saxena, a New-Delhi born banker with diamond interests in Sierra Leone, apparently offered to bankroll the counter-coup to put President Kabbah back in power with the help of a 40,000-strong untrained tribal militia.

Lt Col Spicer, it is claimed, was contacted by Saxena and allegedly flew out to Guinea to prepare a feasibility report last July. Kabbah then allegedly contacted him in December to ask for help in obtaining arms and helicopters.

How did the British Government become involved in that?
Sandline says it held a series of meetings with British and American government officials and intelligence officers to brief them on preparations for the coup.

The company alleges it was given the "green light" for the arms shipment to supply the Kabbah militia by the British Government, which in turn denies that any such approval was given.

What was illegal about the arms shipment?
On October 8 last year UN resolution 1132, which Britain helped to draft, was passed imposing a blanket arms embargo to Sierra Leone.

The arms consignment was bought by Lt Col Spicer and flown from Bulgaria by chartered aircraft to the Lungi airfield in Sierra Leone - allegedly with British consent and in breach of the embargo.

To make things worse, the shipment immediately fell into the hands of Nigerian forces instead of being distributed to Kabbah's fighters.

Nigeria, which is controlled by a ruthless military regime, was recently suspended from the Commonwealth as part of the Government's new ethical foreign policy.

What other involvement did Sandline have with the counter-coup?
The organisation provided a Russian-built helicopter which was used to ferry troops and equipment in and out of the war zone once the offensive to restore President Kabbah began in February.

Did the British Government have anything to do with the helicopter?
The Sunday Times published pictures showing Royal Navy engineers from a British frigate docked in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown helping to service the helicopter on March 1 this year.

Ministry of Defence officials say the helicopter was assisting only after the coup. The aircraft's role was to help West African military forces to bring humanitarian relief.

What is being done to get to the bottom of all this?
An independent investigation into the Sandline arms shipment is being carried out by HM Customs and Excise.

A British minister at the centre of the row, Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd, was questioned by the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee last week.

An internal inquiry into what Foreign Office officials knew and why ministers were not informed has been ordered by Mr Cook.

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